By: Clive Aaron Gill
When I interviewed for a server job two years ago, the restaurant owner, Mr. Emiril Fieri, said, “Dean, Casa Tua has the ambiance of a classy private club on the Italian Riviera. My patrons expect excellent cuisine and great service.”
Some customers probably thought I was a failure in a dead-end job. When I told them, “I’m an actor,” they nodded their heads as if they understood I was between gigs. Maybe they imagined I would become a celebrity. Then they could have proudly said, “Dean was my server at the Casa Tua restaurant.”
I usually drove to work in my dilapidated, twenty-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, and parked far from the restaurant, located in an elegant converted villa in Miami Beach. Sometimes, I took a bus.
My teenage son got hold of my bank card, used it for online gambling and wiped me out, forcing me to rack up credit card debt. I had to pay my overdue rent soon, or else my son and I would be homeless. I often woke up during the night in a cold sweat, after dreaming I was sleeping under a bridge, depressed and lonely.
On a humid Saturday night, almost all the tables were occupied. Men dressed in tuxedos, white shirts and silk bow ties. Women wore floor-length, black evening gowns, or knee-length cocktail dresses, and well-designed jewelry. Some ladies held champagne flutes with their smooth fingers. Wine magnums chilled in buckets of ice.
A party of six arrived and were seated by the maître d’ at one of my tables in La Biblioteca, a room with Italian decor and artwork. The three men wore bright colored polo shirts, sports coats and loafers. The women were dressed in ordinary skirts, pants and blouses.
I guessed the three couples were the gray-haired parents, their two black-haired sons, and the sons’ companions.
“Good evening,” I said. “Welcome to Casa Tua.”
“Good evening,” they chorused. The gray-haired man nodded and scratched his gray beard.
“My name is Dean, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” I presented each patron with a wine list.
“Can you take a couple of photos of us?” the older woman asked, handing me her phone.
“Of course.” I pressed my lips into a patient smile.
I took three photos of the group and returned the phone. After looking at the pictures, she said, “Lovely. Thanks.” She passed her phone to the others.
One of the younger women said, “Please forward these photos to me. I’ll send one to my friend, Sofia.”
I hoped they wouldn’t be like guests I once had who asked me to take photos. They loved the photos, sent them to their friends, checked the menus, then left, saying they didn’t realize how expensive the food was.
“Does anything on the wine list appeal to you?” I asked. “A cocktail will improve your appetites.” They all sat erect, seemingly indifferent. “The Bond 2000 Melbury Red from Napa Valley is full-bodied with layers of mocha-scented oak, and notes of ripe black cherry and blackberry.” The six guests looked at each other as if waiting for permission to order. I wondered if they were worried about the almost five-hundred-dollar price. “For white wine, you can’t go wrong with a Chardonnay.”
“Not tonight,” the gray-bearded man said. “Just water, please.”
“Still or sparkling, sir?”
“Regular tap water will be fine.”
“Of course, sir.” I collected the wine lists, then brought water and the dinner menus. I described the evening specials in detail, pausing to allow them to ask questions. They remained silent throughout my rehearsed recitation. “Do you have any dietary restrictions?”
“No,” the gray-haired woman said.
“Can I get you appetizers? I recommend the baked brie in a puff pastry shell, coated with honey and topped with toasted pecans. Or spiedini, our delicious grilled veal or lamb rolls with currants and nuts filling,”
“We’ll just have the entrees,” the older man said, narrowing his eyes as if impatient.
I left the six patrons to examine the menus and discuss what they would order. I took orders for desserts at two of my other tables. At one of those tables, the guests had not ordered wine, appetizers or entrées.
On my return, the six guests ordered cheaper menu items: Ricotta Cavatelli, Linguine alla Nerano, Pumpkin Carnaroli Risotto, and Bigoli Cacio e Pepe. I groaned inwardly at the thought of a disappointing gratuity and struggled to hide my annoyance.
When I brought their meals, I served from the right side of each guest, using my right arm in a graceful movement.
“May I suggest you put your phone in a safe place, ma’am?” I said to the older woman, who had placed the phone beside her glass. “A guest spilled water on her phone yesterday.”
“Good advice.” She dropped the phone into her purse.
“Enjoy your meals,” I said in a practiced, cheerful tone. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
Twenty minutes later, I arrived at their table with a jug of water to refill their glasses. One of the younger women raised her glass during the refill, probably trying to help, but almost making me spill the iced water.
I stepped away to take care of my other guests, but stayed close enough to attend to the six guests’ needs while they ate leisurely and talked. I waited until they stopped eating before I returned to present the dessert lists and take their orders.
“No dessert for us tonight,” the older woman said. “We enjoyed your excellent service.”
The gray-haired man at her side waved his hand as if signing his name, indicating he wanted the check.
When I returned, I said, “Thank you for dining with us tonight. Please come back soon.” My face showed no evidence of my disappointment. With customers who ordered inexpensive meals and gave small gratuities, how would I pay my rent?
I watched them leave the restaurant and shook my head at my misfortune. I did not want to look at a small gratuity on the credit card receipt. But I told myself, “Just do it.”
When I did, I stared at the tip, feeling dizzy with excitement. The gray-bearded man had undoubtedly made a mistake. I wanted to run outside to ask him about the amount, but I knew Mr. Fieri would disapprove.
I waited until Mr. Fieri wasn’t busy and showed him the largest gratuity I had ever received.
“I’m not surprised,” he said.
“But … but ….”
“They have a yacht and a jet, and they spend six months a year at their villa in Latronico, in southern Italy.”
I paid my rent and my credit card bill. And I still had enough money for the next two months’ expenses.
Born in Zimbabwe, Clive has lived and worked in Southern Africa, North America and Europe. He received a degree in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and lives in San Diego.